My mate Mat is a military guy. In fact, he's pretty high up in the military and has spent 30-odd years doing all the things that our military does - disaster relief, peacekeeping and the odd bit of defence. One thing that the military has given Mat is a heightened competitive sense and on the rare occasion when we head out running, there isn't much talking as we each try and tear the others' legs off.
Post-run, however, we sometimes sit down for a beer or a coffee and have yarns about our respective experiences. Spending 20 or so years as a volunteer firefighter, I can identify with the military focus on hierarchy, command and control and results. After all, whether you're firefighting or launching an offensive campaign, the process you use is less important than the outcome.
At the same time, I've spent a couple of decades in the startup world and have gained an appreciation for the value of ideas and how "thinking big" can result in the result that can, quite literally, change the world.
I was thinking about Mat the other day when I was reading about the PortaPresso crowdfunding campaign. For those who haven't caught up with the news, a couple of young entrepreneurs decided that what the world (or at least the world of millennials) really needed was a totally portable coffee maker that would do everything from grinding beans to pouring a shot of espresso to foaming milk.
Like all good millennials (and, to be fair, this isn't a trait that is limited to millennials only) these two decided to go the way of crowdfunding. They put together the requisite stuff one needs for a crowdfunding campaign - an impressive video, aspirational text, a great social media profile and the like - and launched their campaign.
Long story short, these two raised around $80,000 from backers who were excited about their idea. With this money raised, the duo proceeded to ... do very little it seems. And, while most of their backers displayed the somewhat bizarre attitude that seems to be prevalent with failed or failing crowdfunding campaign, that is seeming disinterest, one or two backers got a little up in arms that not only was there no line of sight to the espresso maker, but there was little or no communication from the pair.
Finally, as the media hubbub became too loud, the pair fronted and had this to say:
"We underestimated the complexity of this project at the outset as we were quoted NZ$70,000 and an estimated timeline of approximately six months.
"We had never done anything like this before, nor do we have an engineering background, so had no reason to question whether or not this was attainable.
"Upon completion, the total cost of this project will have cost us well over a million NZD."
So, let's just unpick this a little. A pair with zero business experience, no engineering experience, hardly any money and no networks had an idea. They were so emboldened at their perceived value of the idea, that they thought it appropriate to take individuals' money off of them.
Let me reiterate: they had an idea, but zero idea how to actually fulfil that idea. They were much like the person who dreams of being an All Black, but without an ounce of hand/eye co-ordination. Or someone who wants to be the next rock star, but without any musical ability whatsoever.
Sadly, this is far from being an isolated case. Indeed, modern society seems to have embarked upon a cult of ideas and we see this borne out at things like TED conferences and one-day business competitions where we are told that all that is needed is merely having an idea, and spouting about that idea to all and sundry.
A few years ago, in an opinion piece about this Cult of Ideas, the comment was made that:
"The difference between wanting to learn and wanting to believe is not trivial. Learning includes a large component of critical thinking, of questioning and, if possible, testing hypotheses. In contrast, there is no critical thinking component in wanting to believe. Wanting to believe is essentially an emotional push for faith in whatever you're being told."
I want to believe that I could be an All Black, a concert pianist or, indeed, create the smallest portable espresso maker in the world. I do not, however, have the skills, attributes or learning to do any of those things.
I can imagine Mat resting his head in his hands about this story and he imagines stopping Somali pirates, helping cyclone-afflicted Island nations or going into battle with nothing but a vague idea in his head. He would suggest, I am sure, that we need to end this Cult of Ideas and focus on actually doing things. Just imagine ...
- Ben Kepes is a Christchurch-based investor and entrepreneur.